E-text prepared by Al Haines
A PAGAN OF THE HILLS
CHARLES NEVILLE BUCK
"The Call of the Cumberlands," "The Battle Cry," "When Bearcat Went Dry," Etc., Etc.
Frontispiece by George W. Gage
[Frontispiece: Sometimes, in these days, she went to a crest from which the view reached far off for leagues over the valley.]
New York W. J. Watt & Company Publishers Copyright, 1919, by W. J. Watt & Company
A PAGAN OF THE HILLS
"It's plum amazin' ter heer ye norate thet ye've done been tradin' and hagglin' with old man McGivins long enough ter buy his logs offen him and yit ye hain't never met up with Alexander. I kain't hardly fathom hit noways."
The shambling mountaineer stretched himself to his lean length of six feet two, and wagged an incredulous head. Out of pale eyes he studied the man before him until the newcomer from "down-below" felt that, in the attitude, lay almost the force of rebuke. It was as though he stood self-convicted of having visited Naples without seeing Vesuvius.
"But I haven't been haggling with Mr. McGivins," he hastened to remonstrate. "On the contrary we have done business most amicably."
The native of the tangled hills casually waved aside the distinction of terms as a triviality and went on: "I hain't nuver heered tell of no man's tradin' in these hyar Kentucky mountains without he haggled considerable. Why thet's what tradin' denotes. Howsomever what flabbergasts me air thet ye hain't met up with Alexander. Stranger, ye don't know nothin' about this neck o' the woods a-tall!"
Parson Acup, so called for the funereal gravity of his bearing and expression, and Brent the timber-buyer, stood looking down from beetling cliffs rigidly bestowed with collossal and dripping icicles. To their ears came a babel of shouts, the grating of trees, long sleet-bound but stirring now to the thaw—the roar of blasting powder and the rending of solid rock.
Brent laughed. "Now, that you've fathomed the density of my ignorance," he suggested, "proceed to enlighten me. Upon what does this Alexander rest his fame? What character of man is he?"
"Wa'al, stranger, I've done always held ther notion thet we folks up hyar in these benighted hills of old Kaintuck, war erbout the ign'rantest human mortals God ever suffered ter live—but even us knows erbout Alexander. Fust place he hain't no man at all. He's a gal—leastwise, Alexander was borned female but she's done lived a plum he-life, ever since."
"A woman—but the name——"
"Oh, pshaw! Thar hain't nuthin' jedgmatic in a name. Old man McGivins he jest disgusts gals and so he up and named his fust born Alexander an' he's done reared her accordin'."
Brent arched his brows as his informant continued, gathering headway in the interest of his narrative. "Old man McGivins he's done read a lavish heap of books an' he talks a passel of printed wisdom. He 'lowed thet Alexander wa'nt no common man's name but thet hit signified a hell-bustin' survigrous feller. By his tellin', ther fust Alexander whaled blazes outen all creation an' then sot down an' cried like a baby because ther job he'd done went an' petered out on him. Ter me, thet norration savers right strong of a damn lie."
Brent nodded as he smilingly replied, "I've read of that first Alexander, but he's been dead a good many centuries."
"Long enough ter leave him lay an' ferget about him, I reckon," drily observed the parson. "Anyhow atter a spell Old Man McGivins had another bornin' at his dwellin-house an' thet time hit proved out to be a boy. His woman sought ter rechristen ther gal Lizzie or Lake Erie or somethin' else befittin petticoats. She 'lowed thet no godly man wouldn't hardly seek a woman in wedlock, ner crave fer her to be ther mother of his children with a name hung on her like Alexander Macedonia McGivins."
Brent's eye twinkled as he watched the unbending gravity of the other's face and since comment seemed expected he conceded, "There seems to be a germ of reason in that."
"Then ther boy commenced growin' up, lazy-like an' shiftless," enlightened the parson. "Ther old man 'lowed thet hit wouldn't hardly be no fallacy ter name him Lizzie or Lake Erie, but he swore on a hull stack of Bibles thet he aimed ter make a man of ther gal."
Suddenly the speaker broke off and his brow clouded. Following the apprehensive direction of the frowning eyes as one might follow a dotted line the man from the city saw a young mountaineer surreptitiously tilting a flask to his lips in the lee of a huge boulder. Palpably the drinker believed himself screened from view, and when he had wiped the neck of the flask with the palm of his hand and stowed it away again in his breast pocket he looked furtively about him—and that furtiveness was unusual enough to elicit surprise in this land where men drank openly and made moonshine whiskey and even gave it to their small children.
"Since ther time of corn drappin' an' kiverin'," said the Parson, slowly, "Bud Sellers hain't teched a dram afore now. Hit don't pleasure me none ter see him startin' in afresh."
"He's been working hard," suggested the timber buyer tolerantly. "I've watched him and he never seems to tire. Maybe he felt the need of a stimulant."
But Acup growled. "When Bud leaves licker alone thar hain't no better boy nowhars. When he follers drinking he gits p'izen mean right down to ther marrer in his insidest bone. Folks calls him ther mad-dog then. Ef these men finds out he's drinkin', they'll quit work an' scatter like pa'tridges does when they sees a hawk flutterin' overhead."
The loose-jointed giant turned on his heel and left Brent standing alone. Snow after snow had fallen this winter and frozen tight, heaped high by blizzard after blizzard until all the legendary "old fashioned winters" had been outdone and put to shame. Then without warning had come some warm breath across the peaks bringing January rains on the heels of zero frigidity and thaws of unprecedented swiftness. While the "spring-tide" was to have been an agency of safe delivery for the felled timber this premature flood threatened to be a lawless one of devastation. Brent had rushed up here from the city driven by anxiety as to the logs he had contracted to buy—logs which the oncoming flood threatened to ravish into scattered and racing drift. He had found old man McGivins toiling without sleep or rest; racing against the gathering cohorts of a Nature turned vandal, and into the fight and stress he had thrown himself and all his energies.
That there was even the slimmest of chances to save the poplar, was a fact due to a peculiar conformation of the levels there, and to exceptional circumstances.
"Gin'rally we just rolls ther logs down hill when we cuts 'em an' lets 'em lay thar whar they falls in ther creek beds," McGivins had explained. "Afore ther spring tide comes on with ther thaws an' rains, we builds a splash dam back of 'em an' when we're ready we blows her out an' lets 'em float on down ter ther nighest boom fer raftin'. Ef a flood like this comes on they gits scattered, an' we jest kisses 'em good-bye. Thet's happenin' right now all along these numerous small creeks."
But McGivins had cut his timber near a river that could float not only loose logs but rafts, and in a small lake-like basin hemmed in by cliffs and separated by a gorge from the river he had gathered them and bound them into three large rafts. Only such a stage as came with the "tide" would convert the gorge into a water-way out, and only then wen the great dam built across it had been dynamited.
Now came this flood, infinitely more powerful than the ordinary rise of spring. The dam was threatened and must be strengthened and raised higher. If it gave way, he too must "kiss his logs good-bye."
As the city man speculated on the odds against him Old Man McGivins himself materialized at his elbow. His lips were tight-set and his brow was furrowed. For him the situation savored of impending tragedy. These trees had been reluctantly felled from a virgin tract of forest heretofore unscarred by the axe, and they had been his long-hoarded treasure. He had held on to them much as a miser holds to his savings because he loved them. Even when Brent had offered a good price, running well into thousands, he had wrestled with himself. When the axes had rung and the saws whined through the scarlet and golden autumn, it had almost seemed to him that he was executing living and beloved friends. Now an inimical force of Nature threatened to rob him of them and of his remuneration as well. Yet as he stood there, with the sweat and grime of his labor drying on his forehead, his brooding eyes held a patriarchal dignity of uncomplaining courage.
"All these hyar men air my neighbors, Mr. Brent," he said with a manner of instinctive courtesy. "They hain't a-workin' fer wages but jest ter kinderly convenience me—I reckon we're both of us right smart beholden to 'em."
The city man acquiescently nodded his head but he was thinking chiefly of the calm patience and the tireless strenuousity with which McGivins, himself, was battling against calamity.
"They are friends of yours," he answered. "They realize that your loss will be heavy if——" He broke off there and the other went on.
"Hit'll mighty nigh cripple me ef we don't save 'em. I've done held on ter thet timber fer a long spell of years an' I sorrers ter part with hit now. But thar's a right weighty mortgage on my land an' hit's held by a man thet don't squander no love on me at best."
Brent gritted his teeth. He had heretofore known only in the indirectness of theory the sudden capriciousness of mountain weather; storms that burst and cannonade without warning; trickling waters that leap overnight into maddened freshets. Now he was seeing in its blood-raw ferocity the primal combat between man and the elements.
With a troubled brow Parson Acup returned and addressed McGivins. "Aaron," he said bluntly, "right numerous fellers air threatenin' ter quit us and we kain't spare a single hand."
The old man flinched as if under a blow from a trusted hand. "What fer does they aim ter quit?" he demanded.
"Bud Sellers has started in drinkin' licker, an' a'ready he's gittin' malignant. Ther Martin boys an' ther Copelands an' others beside 'em, 'lows thet they ain't seekin' no heedless trouble and hit's more heedful-like fer 'em ter go on home an' avoid an affray. Ef they stays on hit's right apt to end in blood-lettin'."
McGivins drew himself to a more rigid erectness. "Go back an' tell them boys thet I needs 'em," he ordered. "Tell 'em ef they don't stand by me now, I'm ruint. I'll send Bud away ef thet's all thet's frettin' 'em."
"I wouldn't counsel ye ter cross Bud jest now," advised Acup, but the other laughed under his long beard, a low angry laugh, as he turned on his heel and, with the man from the city following him, started in search of the troublemaker.
Bud was found at last behind the great hump of towering rock. The place, walled in by beetling precipice, was beginning to darken into cloister-dim shadows. Bud's back was turned and he did not hear the footfall of the two men who had come upon him there. He knew that when once he succumbed to the thirst it meant a parting with reason and a frenzy of violence. But when the first savor of the fiery moonshine stuff had teased his palate and the first warmth had glowed in his stomach it meant surrender to debauch—and already he had gone too far to fight the appetite which was his ruin.
Now he stood with the flask to his lips and his head bent back, but when he had drunk deep he turned and saw the two figures that were silently observing him.
His eyes were already blood-shot and his cheeks reddened. The motions of his lithe body were unsteady. With a shamefaced gesture the young man sought to conceal the flask under his coat, then a fickle change came to his mood. His head bent down low like a bull's and his shoulders hulked in a stiffening defiance.
"Spyin' on me, air ye?" The question rasped savagely from his thickened lips. "Well, damn ther pair of ye, spies desarves what they gits! I'm a free man an' I don't suffer no bull-dozin' from nobody."
He lurched forward with so threatening an air that Brent stepped a little to the side and instinctively his hand went to the coat pocket where he carried a pistol. But Bud ignored him, focussing his attention upon the mountain man to whom he had come in friendship and service for the stemming of a disaster. He came with a chin out-thrust close to the older and bearded face. Truculence and reckless bravado proclaimed themselves in the pose, as he bulked there. "Wa'al," he snarled, "ye heered me, didn't ye?"
But McGivins had not altered his attitude. He had not given back a stride nor moved his arms. Now he spoke quietly.
"I'm sore grieved to see you comin' ter this pass, Bud," he said. "We all knows what hit means every time. I'm obleeged ter ye fer what ye've already done—an' I'll ask ye, now, ter go on home afore ye drinks any more whiskey—or starts any ruction amongst my neighbors."
"So thet's hit, air hit?" Bud rocked a little on his feet as he stood confronting the steady challenge of Aaron McGivins. "So ye lets a man work slavish fer ye all day, and then starts in faultin' him ef he takes a drink at sun-down. Well damn ye, I don't aim ter go nowhars tell I'm ready an' ambitious ter go—does ye hear thet or does I hev ter tell ye again?"
With a very deliberate motion McGivins lifted one arm and pointed it towards the west—that way lay the nearest boundary of his tract.
"I've done asked ye plum civil ter go, because ef you don't go other fellers will—fellers thet's wuth somethin'. Now I orders ye ter get offen my land. Begone!"
What happened next was such a tumult of abruptness that Brent found himself standing inactive, not fully grasping the meaning of the situation. From Bud came a roar of anger as he lunged and grappled with the bearded elder, carrying him back in the onslaught. With a belated realization, Brent threw himself forward but just as his hand fell on the shoulder of Bud Sellers he heard a report, muffled because it was fired between two savagely embraced bodies. The lumber buyer had seen no weapon drawn. That had been the instinctive legerdemain of mountain quickness, which even drink had not blunted. As he wrenched Bud back, the wounded figure stood for a moment swaying on legs that slowly and grotesquely buckled into collapse at the knees until Aaron McGivins crumpled down in a shapeless heap.
Bud Sellers wrenched himself free with a muscular power that almost hurled Brent to the ground, and the pistol fell from his hand. For a moment the young assailant stood there with an expression of dismayed shock, as though, in his sleep, he had committed a crime and had awakened into an appalled realization. Then, ignoring Brent, he wheeled and lunged madly into the laurel.
Figures came running in response to the alarm of pistol report and shouting, but old man McGivins, whom they carried to the nearest bonfire, feebly nodded his head. Parson Acup was bending over him and when he rose it was with a dubious face.
"I fears me thet wound's mighty liable ter be a deadener," he said.
Then the wounded man lifted a trembling hand. "Git me over home," he directed shortly, "An' fer God's sake, boys, go forward with this work till hit's finished."
Through the tree tops came a confusion of voices, but none of them human. A wind was racing to almost gale-like violence and with it came the inrush of warm air to peaks and valleys that had been tight-frozen. Between precipices echoed the crash of ice sliding loose and splintering as it fell in ponderous masses. Men sweating in the glare of collossal bonfires toiled at the work of re-inforcing the dam.
They had been faithful; they were still faithful, but the stress of exhaustion was beginning to sap their morale; to drive them into irritability so that, under the strain of almost superhuman exertion, they threatened to break. Brent was not of their blood and knew little of how to handle them, and though Parson Acup was indefatigable, his face became more and more apprehensive.
"Ef we kin hold 'em at hit till ther crack of day, we've got a right gay chanst ter save them big sticks," he announced bluntly to Brent near midnight. "But hit hain't in reason ter expect men ter plum kill themselves off fer ther profit of somebody else—an' him likely ter be dead by termorrer."
"Could McGivins have kept them in line himself?" demanded Brent and the Parson scratched his head. "Wa'al he mout. Thar's somethin' masterful in thet breed thet kinderly drives men on. I don't know es I could name what it air though."
Then even as he spoke a group of humanity detached itself from the force on the dam and moved away as men do who are through with their jobs. They halted before Acup and one of them spoke somewhat shame-facedly: "I disgusts ter quit on a man in sore need, Parson, but us fellers kain't hold up no longer. We're plum fagged ter death—mebby termorrer mornin'——"
He broke off and Acup answered in a heavy-hearted voice: "So fur as this hyar job's consarned most likely thar won't be no termorrer. Old man McGivins lays over thar, mebby a-dyin' an' this means a master lot to him——"
"If it's a matter of pay," began Brent and left his suggestion unfinished. A quick glance of warning from Acup cautioned him that this was a tactless line and one of the men answered shortly, "Pay hain't skeercely ergoin' ter hold a man up on his legs when them legs gives out under him, stranger."
"No, Lige, pay won't do it, but upstandin' nerve will—an' I knows ye've got hit. Ef anybody quits now, they're all right apt ter foller suit."
At the sound of the first words, Brent had pivoted as suddenly as though a bolt had struck him. They came in a voice so out of keeping with the surroundings, so totally different from any he had heard that day, that it was a paradox of sound. In the first place it was a woman's voice and here were only sweating men. In the second, although full and clear as if struck from well cast bell metal, it had a rich sweetness and just now the thrill of deep emotion.
In the red flare of the bonfire that sent up a shower of sparks into the wet darkness, he saw a figure that brought fresh astonishment.
The woman stood there with a long rubber slicker tight-buttoned from collar to hem. Below that Brent saw rubber boots. She stood with a lance-like straightness, very tall, very pliant, and as he stared with a fixity which would have amounted to impertinence had it not been disarmed by amazement she looked past him and through him as if he were himself without substance.
Then she took off the heavy Nor'wester that had shaded her face, and the firelight fell on masses of hair deeply and redly gold; upon features exquisitely modeled, in no wise masculine or heavy, yet full of dominance. Duskily-lashed eyes of dark violet were brimming with a contagious energy and her rounded chin was splendidly atilt. A sculptor might have modeled her as she stood, and entitled his bronze "Victory."
Her coloring too was rich, almost dazzling, and Brent thought that he had never seen such arresting beauty or such an unusual though harmonious blending of feminine allurement—and masculine spirit. Though in height she approached the heroic of scale, the first summary of impression which he drew from feature and coloring was "delicately gorgeous."
The girl vouchsafed him no attention of any kind but remained silent for a moment with her eyes raining so resolute a fire that those of the exhausted workers kindled into faint responsiveness.
Then the vibrant clarity of the voice sounded again—and the voice too had that strangely hypnotic quality that one felt in the glance. "You boys have all worked here hour on hour, till ye're nigh dead. My paw an' me are already powerful beholden to ye all but——" She paused and under just such an emotion the ordinary woman's throat would have caught with a sob and her eyes would have filled with tears. It was not so with Alexander. Her note only softened into a deeper gravity. "But he lays over thar an' I mistrusts he's a-dyin' ternight. He wouldn't suffer me ter tarry by his bed-side because he 'lowed thet you boys needed a man ter work along with ye in his place. If ye quits now all the labor ye've done spent goes fer naught." She paused a moment and then impulsively she broke out: "An' I couldn't hardly endure ter go back thar an' tell him that we'd failed."
As she paused the hollow-eyed men shuffled their feet but none of them spoke. They had given generously, prodigally even, of their effort and it had not been for hire. Yet under the burning appeal of her eyes they flushed as though they had been self-confessed malingerers.
"But as fer me," went on Alexander, "I've got ter git ter work."
She unbuttoned and cast off the long rubber coat and Brent felt as if he had seen the unveiling of a sculptured figure which transcended mediocrity. A flannel shirt, open on a splendidly rounded throat, emphasized shoulders that fell straight and, for a woman unusually broad, though not too broad for grace. She was an Amazon in physique yet so nicely balanced of proportion that one felt more conscious of delicate litheness than of size. As her breath came fast with excitement the fine arch of her heaving bosom was that of a Diana. Belted about a waist that had never known the cramp of stays, she wore a pair of trousers thrust into her boot tops and no man there was more unself-conscious.
The exhausted men stirred restlessly as they watched her go down to the dam, and one of those who had dropped to a sitting posture came lumberingly to his feet again.
"I reckon I've got my second wind now," he lamely announced. "Mebby thar's a leetle mite more work left in me yit atter all," and he started back, stumbling with the ache of tired bones, to the task he had renounced, while his fellows grumbled a little and followed his lead.
Throughout the day Brent had felt himself an ineffective. He had done what he could but his activities had always seemed to be on the less strenuous fringe of things like a bee who works on the edge of a honey comb.
Now as the replenished fire leaped high and the hills resounded to an occasional peal of unseasonable thunder the figure of the woman who had assumed a man's responsibility became a pattern of action. In the flare and the shadow he watched it, fascinated. It was always in the forefront, frequently in actual but unconsidered peril, leading like the white plume of Navarre.
It was all as lurid and as turgid a picture as things seen in nightmare or remembered from mythology—this turmoil of emergency effort through a fire-lit night of storm and flood; figures thrown into exaggeration as the flames leaped or dwindled—faces haggard with weariness.
To Brent came a new and keener spirit of combat. The outskirts of action no longer sufficed, but with an elemental ardor and elation his blood glowed in his veins.
When at last all that could be done had been done, the east was beginning to take on a sort of ashen light—the forerunner of dawn. Alexander had held to the sticking-point the quailing energies of spent men for more than six agonized hours. Below them the river bed that had been almost dry forty-eight hours ago was a madly howling torrent.
Men with faces gray and hollow-eyed laid down their crow-bars and pike-poles. Brent, reeling unsteadily as he walked, looked about him in a dazed fashion out of giddy eyes. He saw Alexander wiping the steaming moisture from her brow with the sleeve of her shirt and heard her speak through a confused pounding upon eardrums that still seemed full of cumulative din.
"Unless ther flood carries ther river five foot higher then hit's ever gone afore, we've done saved thet timber," she said slowly. "An' no men ever worked more plum slavish ner faithful then what you men have ternight."
"That hain't nothin' more left ter do now," said Parson Acup, "unless hit be ter go home an' pray."
But Alexander shook her head with a vigorous and masculine determination.
"No, thar's still one thing more ter do. I want thet when you men goes home ye send me back a few others—fresh men. I'm goin' back ter see how my daddy's farin' an' whether he's got a chanst ter live, but——" she paused abruptly and her voice fell, "thar's a spring-branch over thar by my house. Ye kin mighty nigh gauge how ther water's risin' or fallin' hyar by notin' ther way hit comes up or goes down over yon. I aims ter keep a watchin' hit, whilst I'm over thar."
The parson nodded his head. "That's a right good idee, Alexander, but wharfore does ye seek ter hev us send more men over hyar? All thet kin be done, has been done."
The girl's eyes snapped. In them were violet fires, quick-leaping and hot.
"I hain't gone this fur only ter quit now," she passionately declared. "Them logs is rafted. Ef they goes out on this flood-tide, I aims ter ride 'em down-stream 'twell I kin land 'em in a safe boom."
"But my God Almighty, gal," Parson Acup, wrenched out of his usual placidity by the effrontery of the project, spoke vehemently. "Any tide thet would bust thet dam would sartain shore rip them rafts inter fragments. Ef they goes out a-tall they goes out ter destruction and splinters an' sure death, I fears me. Hit's like ridin' a runaway hoss without no bit in his mouth."
"Thet's a thing I've done afore now," the girl assured him. "An' I aims ter undertake hit ergin."
She turned and, taking the rubber coat from a tree crotch, went striding away with her face toward the pale east and despite fatigue she went high-headed and with elasticity in her step.
The two-storied house of Aaron McGivins stood on a hill-side overlooking a stretch of cleared acreage. It was a dwelling place of unusual pretentiousness for that land of "Do-without," where inexorable meagerness is the rule of life. Just now in a room whose hearth was wide, upon a four-poster bed, lay the master of the place gazing upwards at the rafters with eyes harassed, yet uncomplaining.
Aaron McGivins had just cause for troubled meditation as he stretched there under the faded coverlet and under the impending threat of death, as well. His life had been one of scant ease and of unmitigated warfare with the hostile forces of Nature. Yet he had built up a modest competency after a life time of struggle. With a few more years of industry he might have claimed material victory. In the homely parlance of his kind he had things "hung-up," which signified such prosperity had come to him as came to the pioneer woodsmen who faced the famine times of winter with smoked hams hanging from their nails, and tobacco and pepper and herbs strung along the ceiling rafters.
Aaron McGivins had not progressed to this modestly enviable estate without the driving of shrewd bargains and the taking of bold chances. It followed that men called him hard, though few men called him other than just. To his door came disputants who preferred his arbitration on tangled issues to the dubious chances of litigation, for he was also accounted wise.
His repute among his neighbors was that of a man devoted to peace, but one upon whom it was unsafe to impose. Those few who had stirred his slow anger into eruption, had found him one as distinctly to be feared as trusted.
Had political aspiration been in the pattern of Aaron's thought he might have gone down to the world below to sit in the state assembly. From there in due time he might have gained promotion to the augmented dignities of Congress, but he had persistently waved aside the whispers of such temptation. "He hain't a wishful feller nohow," the stranger was always told, "despite thet he knows hist'ry an' sich like lore in an' out an' back'ards an' forrards."
Now Aaron lay wounded with a pistol ball, and many problems of vital interest to himself remained unsolved. Whether he would live or die was guess work—a gamble. Whether the timber which he had felled would free him from his last debt and leave his two children independent, or be ravished from him by the insatiable appetite of the flood was a question likewise unanswered. Whether or not the daughter, who was the man of the family after himself, would return in time to comfort his last moments was a doubt which troubled him most of all. He had sent her away as unequivocally as a stricken captain sends his first officer to the bridge, but he wanted her as a man, shipwrecked and starving, wants the sight of a sail or of a smoke-stack on an empty horizon.
And his boy—the boy who had given him small strength upon which to lean, was absent. He had gone idly and thoughtlessly before the emergency arose, and the man lying on the four-poster bed tried to argue for him, in extenuation, that he would have returned had he known the need. But in his bruised and doubting heart he knew that had it been Alexander, she would have read the warning in the first brook that she saw creeping into an augmented stream, and would have hastened home.
About the room moved the self-taught doctor, who was also the local Evangelist. Two neighbor women were there too, called from adjacent cabins to take the place of the daughter he had sent away. They were ignorant women, hollow-chested and wrinkled like witches because they had spent lives against dun-colored backgrounds, but they were wise in the matter of "yarbs" and simple nursing.
All night Aaron McGivins had lain there, restive and unable to sleep. With him had been those matters which obtrude themselves, with confusing multiplicity, upon the mind of a man who was yesterday strong and unthreatened and who to-day faces the requirement of readjusting all his scheme from the clear and lighted ways of life to the gathering mists of death. He had seen through a high-placed window the gray of dawn grow into a clearer light, making visible rag-like streamers of wet and scudding clouds. He had a glimpse of mountain-sides sodden with thaw—the thaw to which he owed his whole sum of sudden perplexities.
Then the door swung open.
Eagerly the bed-ridden man turned his eyes towards it; eagerly, too, the doctor's gaze went that way, but the two women, glancing sidewise, sniffed dubiously and stiffened a little. To them the anxiously awaited daughter was an unsexed creature whom they could neither understand nor approve. They had lived hard and intolerent lives, accepting drudgery and perennial child-bearing as unquestioned mandates of destiny. Accustomed to the curt word and to servile obedience they had no understanding for a woman who asserted herself in positive terms of personality. To them a "he-woman" who "wore pants" and admitted no sex inferiority was at best a "hussy without shame." If such a woman chanced also to be beautiful beyond comparison with her less favored sisters, the conclusion was inescapable. They could read in her self-claimed emancipation only the wildness of a filly turned out to pasture without halter or hobble; the wildness of one who scorns respectability; for primitive morality is pathetically narrow. It may sing piously about the pyre of a burning witch, but it can hardly grasp the pagan chastity of a Diana.
And it was a Diana both chaste and vital who stood in this wide-flung door. Behind her far radiant background was the full light of a young day. For an instant the scowl of storm-laden skies broke into a smile of sunlight as though she had brought the brightness with her. But she stood poised in an attitude of arrested action—halted by the curb of anxiety. The whole vitality and clean vigor of her seemed breathless and questioning. Fear had spurred her into fleetness as she had crossed the hills, yet now she hesitated on the threshold. At first her eyes could make little of the inner murk, where both lamp and fire had guttered low and gray shadows held dominance.
But she herself stood illumined by that transitory flash of morning sun. It played in an aura about the coppery coils of her hair and kindled into vivid color the lips parted in suspense.
After a moment her eyes had reaccommodated themselves to the dispiriting darkness and her bosom heaved to a sigh of relief; of thanksgiving. Under the heaped coverlets of the bed she had seen the movement of feeble hand stirred in a gesture of welcome.
The neighbor women, bent on a mission of charity, yet unable to lay aside their hard convictions, gazed non-committally on, as though they would draw aside their skirts from contamination, yet sought to do so with the least possible measure of ostentation or offense.
That attitude Alexander did not fail to comprehend but she ignored it, giving back to the smouldering eyes of disapproval level look for look. Then she said quietly: "Brother Sanders, kin I hev speech with him—or must he lay plum quiet?"
The man of healing passed a bewildered hand across his tousled forehead, and with thin fingers combed his long beard.
"He ought, properly speakin', ter stay quiet—but yit—he's frettin' fer ye so thet hit mought harm him wuss ter deny him."
"I'll aim ter keep him es placid es I kin," said the girl, and in obedience to her gesture the others left the room.
Then Alexander dropped to her knees and her hands closed tightly over the thin one that the wounded man thrust weakly up to her. Even now there was no woman-surrender to tears; only wide eyes agonized with apprehension while her shoulders shook as a man's may shake with inward sobs that leave the eyes dry.
In a low voice she made her report. "Ther dam's finished. Without ther flood overtops ther highest mark on record, them logs is saved."
Old Aaron nodded gratefully and gazed in silence at the rafters overhead, realizing that he must conserve his slender strength and that there was much to say. The girl, too, waited until at length he made a fresh beginning.
"Afore ye came, Alexander, me an' yore maw hed done prayed mighty fervent fer a man child."
"I knows thet," she interrupted. "I knows hit full well, an' I've sought deespite how I was borned ter be a man."
"Ye hain't only tried—ye've done succeeded," he assured her, then after a long drawn breath he went on. "Most folks 'lowed hit was like faultin' ther Almighty ter feel thet-a-way. They said hit war plum rebellious."
The girl whose cheeks had gone pallid and whose lips were tight drawn spoke defiantly. "I reckon we hain't keerin' overly much what other folks thinks."
"An' yit," the father made slow answer, "what folks agrees ter think makes ther laws of life whether hit be right or wrong—I'd hev been willin' ter raise ye up like a gal ef hit hadn't been thet Joe——"
He faltered there with Love's unwillingness to criticise his son and the girl only nodded, saying nothing.
"Joe's a good boy, with a sweet nature," went on the father at last. "He favors his maw—an' she was always gentle. Yes, he's a good boy—an' in a country whar a feller kin live without fightin', I reckon he'd be accounted smart beyond ther commonality."
Again the mountaineer's face was contorted into a spasm of pain and his labored breathing demanded a respite of silence. Then slowly he declared with the unvarnished candor of the backwoods: "Joe's got all a man needs—but—jest—guts!"
The kneeling figure reluctantly nodded her assent. These admissions as to one's nearest and dearest must at times be made between men who face facts.
"Ef I passes out, I wants ye ter kinderly look atter him like he ought ter look atter you."
A stray lock of heavy hair had fallen across the girl's violet eyes, and with an impatient gesture at the reminder of her sex, Alexander tossed it back. "I gives ye my pledge," she said simply.
Then she rose from her knees and stood looking off through the window with a fixity that argued a deep dedication of purpose. "An' I pledges ye somethin' else too," she broke out in a voice suddenly savage. "Ef ye dies Bud Sellers belongs ter me ter kill—an' I won't nowise fail."
But at that the wounded man raised a deter rent hand shaken with palsied anxiety.
"No—no!" he gasped. "Thet's ther sperit I've done sought ter combat all my life—ther shot from ther la'rel—ther lay-wayin' of enemies. I couldn't rest easy ef ye denied me that pledge."
Alexander's hands clenched themselves, and her lips were compressed.
"I don't aim ter lay-way him," she declared with an ominous quiet. "I aims ter reckon with him es man ter man."
"Alexander." He spoke with slow difficulty but she knew that the words came earnestly from his heart. "I hain't skeercely got ther strength ter argyfy with ye, but without ye seeks ter hinder me from layin' peaceful in my last sleep ye'll bide by my command. Ther boy wasn't hisself when he harmed me. He war plum crazed. No man loves me better than what he does when he's in his right mind. No man wucked harder down thar. I fergives him full free. I wants ye ter act ther same an' ter make Joe do likewise."
The girl covered her face with her hands and turned from the bed. She went for a moment to the door and flung it open. There was no longer any sunshine—only a dome of leaden heaviness and the wail of dismal wind through the timber. To the father's eyes, despite her masculine attire she was all feminine as she stood there and his face grew tender as he watched the curls stirring at her temples.
Finally she wheeled and with a military stiffness marched back. Slowly she nodded her head. "I gives ye thet pledge too;" she said, "since ye wants hit—but I gives hit with a right heavy sperit."
He reached up and took her hand, drawing her down to the bed by his side.
"Alexander," he said softly, "mebby I hain't played quite fa'r with ye my own self. I've done tried ter raise ye up like a man because I could always kinderly lean on ye—but ye've done been both a son an' a daughter ter me. Maybe though when I'm gone ther woman in ye'll come uppermost an' ye'll think hardly of me fer what I did."
"Think hard of ye fer tryin' ter make a man of me!" Her voice was as full of scornful protest as though a soldier had said, "Think hard of you because you taught me valor!"
He smiled before he spoke again. "I've done warned young men off from co'tin' ye on pain of harm an' death—an' when I'm dead they'll come in lavish numbers seekin' ter make up fer lost time."
"I reckon I kin warn 'em off too," she protested, "an' by ther same means."
Once more a smile flickered in the wearied eyes that looked up from the pillow. "Thet's fer ye ter decide yore own self, but ef ther day ever comes when ye'd ruther welcome a lover then ter drive him off, I don't want ye ter feel thet my memory's standin' in ther way of your happiness."
"Thet day won't never come," she vehemently declared, and her father nodded indulgently.
"Let thet matter lay over fer ther future ter decide," he suggested. "Only ef ye does sometime alter yore way of thinkin' I wants thet men children shell come atter me, bearin' my own name. Joe's children are apt ter take atter him. I don't see how ye kin compass hit, but I wishes thet ef ye ever did wed, yore babies could still be McGivinses."
Despite her announcement of a masculinity which should not mantle into a flooding of the temples and cheeks with blushes of modesty, Alexander turned pink to the roots of her hair. Her voice was a little strained.
"A feller kain't promise thet he won't go crazy," she declared. "But ef ever I does go so crazy es ter wed with a man, thet man'll tek my surname an' our children 'll tek hit too, an' w'ar hit 'twell they dies."
Brent had wondered how the Parson and his exhausted companions would, in the short time at their disposal, be able to call out a new force of volunteers. If the dam gave way and the rafts were swept out the thing would probably happen by noon and there were few telephones in this sparsely peopled community. Yet the device was simple and one of pioneer directness. In many of those households to which the tired workers returned, there were brothers or sons who had heretofore stayed at home. Those who had responded to the first call were all men who were not afraid of toil, but those who might answer the second would be men who courted the hazards of adventure. Sheer dare-deviltry would arouse in them a responsiveness which had remained numb to the call of industry. Down the yellow and turgid path of swollen waters each spring went huge rafted masses of logs manned by brawny fellows who at other times never saw the world that lay "down below." Hastily reared shacks rose on the floating timber islands and bonfires glowed redly. The crews sang wild songs and strummed ancient tunes on banjo and "dulcimore." They fortified themselves against the bite of the chill night air from the jugs which they never forgot. Sometimes they flared into passion and fought to the death, but oftener they caroused good-naturedly as they watched the world flatten and the rivers broaden to the lowlands. After the "tide" took them there was no putting into harbor, no turning back. They were as much at the mercy of the onsweeping waters as is a man who clings to driftwood.
Rafting on the "spring-tide" called out the wilder and more venturesome element; but even that differed vastly from the present situation. It differed just as riding a spirited horse does from trusting oneself, without stirrup leather or bridle rein, to the pell-mell vagaries of a frenzied runaway.
"Ye says Alexander aims ter ride one of them rafts, ef hit gets carried out o' thar?" inquired a tall young man, whose eyes were reckless and dissipated, as a wearied kinsman stumbled into a cabin and threw himself down limply in a chair.
The tall young man was accounted handsome in a crude, back-country way and fancied himself the devil of a fellow with the ladies. "Wa'al," he drawled, "I reckon ef a gal kin undertake hit, I hain't none more timorous then what she air." And to that frankly spoken sentiment he added an inward after-word. "Folks 'lows thet she hain't got no time o' day fer men—but when we ends up this hyar trip, I'll know more erbout thet fer myself." He turned and began making his rough preparations for the voyage.
And as Jase Mallows rose to the bait of that unusual call, so others like him rose and each of them was a man conspicuous for recklessness and wildness among a people where these qualities do not elicit comment until they become extreme.
An hour or two later Brent, eying the fresh arrivals, frowned a bit dubiously as he compared them with the human beavers who had moiled there through the night. It was, he reflected, as though the sheep had gone and the goats had come in their stead.
Then as the newcomers fell to their task of throwing up rough shanties for shelter upon the rafts it seemed to Will Brent as safe a proposition to embark with them as to be shipwrecked with a crew of pirates.
He had himself entertained no intention of boarding any of these three rafts, but he was not craven, and if a girl was going to trust herself to those chances of flood and human passion he told himself that he could do no less than stand by.
The river was already creeping above the gnarled sycamore roots that jutted out of the precipice, marking the highest stage of previous flood tides.
The two neighbor women had come back into the room where Aaron McGivins lay wounded. The man himself, reassured by the presence of his daughter, had fallen at last into an undisturbed sleep and the doctor delivered himself of the first encouragement that had crossed his sternly honest lips. "I reckon now he's got a right even chanst ter git well ef he kin contrive ter rest a-plenty."
The girl's head came back, with a spasmodic jerk. It was the sudden relaxing of nerves that had been held taut to the snapping point. With a step suddenly grown unsteady she made her way to a chair by the hearth and sat gazing fixedly at the dying embers.
She had not let herself hope too much, and now a sudden rush of repressed tears threatened a flood like the one which had come outdoors from the broken tightness of the ice.
But she felt upon her the critical eyes of the neighbor women and refused to surrender to emotion. After a little period of respite she let herself out of the door into the rain that had begun falling with a sobbing fitfulness, and went through the starkness of the woods.
Back of the house was the "spring-branch" of which she had spoken as a gauge to the stage of the flood. By some freakish law of co-ordination, which no one had ever been able to explain, that small stream gave a reading of conditions across the ridge, as a pulse-beat gives the tempo of the blood's current. One could look at it and estimate with fair accuracy how fast and how high the river was rising. When a rotting stump beside the basin of the spring had water around its roots it meant that the arteries of the hills were booming into torrential fury. When the basin overflowed, the previous maximum of the river's rise had been equaled. It was overflowing now.
Alexander stood for a moment gazing with widened and terrified eyes. She had now no time to lose. The lapping waters of a tiny brook were calling her to prompt and hazardous action. She fell to her knees and clasped her hands in a clutch of desperation. "God, give me strength right now ter ack like a man," she prayed. "Hit seems like ther fust time I'm called on, I'm turnin' plum woman-weak."
Then she rose and pressed her pounding temples. It was not the fear of a runaway river that held her in a tormenting suspense of indecision, but the hard choice between leaving her father or fulfilling a duty to which he had assigned her in his stead.
When she opened the door of the house again she saw an agitated figure kneeling beside the bed. For all its breadth of shoulder and six feet of height; for all its inherited stoicism that had stood through generations, it was shaking with sobs.
As Alexander came into the room her brother rose from his knees with pallid cheeks and woebegone eyes.
"Who shot him?" he demanded in a tense voice. "These hyar folks won't tell me nuthin'."
The girl repressed an impulse of satirical laughter. She knew that Joe McGivins would storm and swear vengeance upon the hand that had been raised to strike his father down and that beyond hysterical vehemence his indignation would come to nothing. He would believe himself sincere and in the end his resolution would waste away into procrastination and specious excuses.
"Whoever shot him, Joe," she replied, maintaining the complimentary fiction that she must temporize with his just wrath, "Paw he's done exacted a pledge thet neither of us won't seek ter avenge ther deed. Hit's a pledge thet binds us both."
Even while his temples were still hot with his first wave of passionate indignation, Joe McGivins felt that a bitter cup had passed from him.
"Joe," said the girl in a low voice, "I wants thet ye heeds me clost. Ef we fails ter save this timber hit'll jest erbout kill Paw. Ef ther dam busts loose, somebody's got ter ride them rafts."
The boy's face paled abruptly. He was a handsome youth, outwardly cut to as fine a pattern of physical fitness as his sister exemplified, but in his eyes one found none of her dauntlessness of spirit. Hurriedly Alexander swept on.
"I aims ter go back over thar right now. He's got ter be kept quiet an' so I dastn't tell him what I seeks ter do. I hain't fearsome of leavin' ye ter watch after him. I knows ye kin gentle him an' comfort him even better'n I could do hit myself."
She thrust out her hand, boy fashion, and her brother clasped it. Five minutes later she stood looking down on her father's closed eyes, listening to the easy breathing of the man in the bed.
On the floor at her feet lay the pack which she meant to take with her, a rifle leaned against a chair and a pistol was slung in a holster under her left arm-pit—Alexander was accountred for her venture.
Brent watched her swinging down the slope with an easy, space-devouring stride. He had begun to think she would be too late; more than half to hope she would be too late. If she arrived on time there was, of course, no turning back. It should be recorded to his credit that no man had guessed at his inner trepidation. But the sullen swell of the thundering waters had beaten not only on his ears but on his heart as well—and dread had settled over him like a pall.
Immeasurable power was lashing itself into a merciless fury. Boundless might was loosening into frenzy. He had seen the misshapen wreckage of houses and barns ride by, bobbing like bits of cork. He had seen the swirl of foam that was like the froth of a vast hydrophobia.
The men who had volunteered stood braced and ready at the long sweeps with which, fore and aft, they would seek to hold the course.
Alexander leaped from the shore to the last of the three rafts, and looked about her. Perhaps she had no eye just now for a thing that Brent had noted as significant; the gleam in the eyes that bent upon her arrival.
"Does ye aim ter ride with us, Mr. Brent?" she inquired and when he nodded his assent she said deliberately: "Ye comes from ther city—an' this hyar's liable ter be a rough trip. I reckon I ought ter warn ye whilst thar's still time ter turn back. We've got ter go out on a whirl-pool betwixt them walls of rock an' thar may not be nothin' left but kindlin' wood."
"Thank you," was the somewhat curt response. "I'm taking no greater chances than the rest of you."
No longer was it possible to hope that the dam would hold against the rising crescendo of that battering from beyond and the insidious tongues that licked at its foundations.
It was now only a matter of time, and the hour which followed was a period of dire suspense. Through small breaks already gushed minor cataracts—all growing. No man offered to turn aside but some had recourse to the steadying influence of the pocket flask. Between the gorge's sides they had swift glimpses of racing flotsam that had yesterday been dwelling houses and they waited, nerve-stretched, for the crash that would launch them into the same precarious channel. Their out-going would be as violent and eruptive as that of lava from a crater.
Then the dam broke.
It gave way with a rending such as must have been sounded in the days when a molten globe was cooling. From the base of the dam sucking tongues had licked out boulders that upheld the formation as a keystone holds an arch. It went into collapse with an explosive splintering and left fang-like reefs still standing. Through the breach fell the ponderous weight of a river left unsupported.
First, the inrush flung the rafts backwards against the banks, and then the churning whirlpool which was developed sent them spinning madly outward. The rafts jammed together and trembled with a groaning shudder. They wavered and undulated like cloth and that nearest the gorge lunged outward, dashed against one wall of precipice, caromed off and ground against the other. About the edges, it had gone to splinters but the core still held. The second raft, by some miracle, rode through without collision to ride tilting about the curve into the channel proper. Brent saw, through dazed and uncertain eyes, figures bending to long poles. He felt such a sickening sensation as a man in a barrel may experience at the moment of going over the crest of Niagra. Through it all he felt rather than saw the figure of a girl in man's clothing standing at the center of the raft, poised with bent knees against shock; and with a Valkyrie fire in her eyes.
A half hour later the man from town drew a freer breath. It was still a wild enough ride, but after the lurching dash out of the cauldron, it seemed a peaceful voyage. Now down the center of the river they swept at tide-speed. At either end of each raft men bent to the sweeps in the task of their crude piloting. Tree tops brushed under them as they went and far out on either side were wide-reaching lagoons that had been high ground three days ago.
Alexander herself was standing a little apart and Brent was of a mind to draw her into conversation but as he approached her he decided that this was not the time to improve acquaintanceship. Her air of detachment amounted to aloofness and Brent remembered that she had, weighing upon her, the anxiety of her father's condition.
Jase Mallows, however, just then relieved from duty at the steering sweep, was less subtle of deduction. With his eye on Alexander, whose back was turned to him, he jauntily straightened his shoulders and gave his long mustache a twirl. Brent thought of the turkey-gobbler's strut as, with amused eyes, he watched the backwoods lady-killer. Jase had heard many of the old wives' tales of Alexander and thought of her as one, ambitious of amorous conquest, may think of a famous and much discussed beauty. Had she been another woman, Jase would before now have gone over to the house on a "sparking" expedition, but Old Man McGivins had discouraged such aspirations—and his daughter had been no less definite of attitude. Here, however, he had the girl on neutral ground and meant to seize his opportunity.
So he strolled over to her with an ingratiating smile.
"Aleck," he began in the drawling voice which he himself rather fancied, "we hed a right norrer squeak of hit back thar didn't we?"
There should have been discouragement in the coolness of the glance that she turned upon him, but Jase had the blessing of self-confidence.
"Ye war thar yerself—ye ought ter know," said Alexander curtly. Then she added, "An' don't call me Aleck—my name's Alexander."
Jase Mallows reddened to his temples. There had been moments, even in the straining activity of these hours, for him to boast to his fellows that it would be interesting to watch the progress of his campaign for the affections of Alexander. Now they were watching.
So Jase laughed awkwardly. "Wa'al, thet's reasonable enough," he handsomely conceded. "A gal's got a rather es ter what name she's ter be called by an' ef she's es purty es you be she kin afford ter be high-headed too."
Alexander stood looking the man over from head to foot as though studying a new species—possibly a species of insect-life. Under that embarrassing scrutiny Jase fidgeted his hands. Eventually he drew out a flask and having uncorked it he ceremoniously wiped the bottle's mouth with the palm of his hand. "Let's take a leetle dram ter better acquaintances," he suggested. "Thet thar's licker I wouldn't offer ter nobody but a reg'lar man. Hit's got a kick like a bob-tailed mule."
With features that had not altered their expression, the girl reached out her hand and accepted the bottle.
She held the thing before her, looking at it for a moment, then with a swift gesture tossed it sidewise into the river.
Jase Mallows bent forward and his face flamed, but his anger seemed a tame and little thing to the wrath that leaped from calm to blazing eruption in the woman's eyes.
"Whilst we're aboard this hyar raft," Alexander announced with an utterance that cut like a zero wind, "I'm boss an' I aims fer men ter stay sober. Ef thet don't suit you—go ashore."
"How?" inquired Jase with a heavy irony and Alexander replied shortly, "Thet's yore business."
She turned on her heel and walked away leaving the discomfited Lothario staring after her with so malign an anger that the men within ear-shot stifled their twitters of amusement and pretended to have overheard nothing.
As Alexander passed him, Brent did not miss the suppressed fury in her eyes or the disdainful tilt of her chin. Her bearing was that of a barbaric princess, and a princess of meteorically vivid beauty. There had been a deliberate purpose in the clear carrying tones with which she had repulsed Jase Mallows. He had been the first man to make advances, because he was the boldest, but for all her guise of unconsciousness she had seen the passion smoulder in the eyes about her and later others might become emboldened unless they were discouraged by a clear precedent. Heretofore her father's stern repute had safeguarded her. Now she was dependent upon herself alone.
Down the yellow river swept the two uninjured rafts and the one that carried a fringe of raggedness. For the most part the men were busy with sweep and pike-pole fending off the cumbering drift and clearing the whirlpools where hidden reefs threatened destruction. There were sharp turns and angles too, where the yellow water roared into fretful and vehement menace. With night-fall the heights seemed to draw in and huddle close and the dirge of flood and wind mounted into a heavier timbre.
Fires leaped into fitful radiance. Banjos and "dulcimores" came out of hiding and sounded plaintively over the waste of waters. Scraps of almost mediaeval life showed out in thumb-nail sketches between the sooty shadow world and the red flare of the bonfires. Voices were lifted into weird minors and lugubrious tunes, recitative, of sad love themes—and these were, of course, addressed to Alexander. She joined no group, but sat with her hands clasped about her updrawn knees and her gaze ranging off into distance. The carmine and orange illumination played upon her color of cheek and hair and eyes and when, unconsciously her face fell into a reflective quiet and her lips drooped with a touch of wistfulness, the allurement of her beauty was arresting and undeniable. Brent fell to wondering what life could hold for her.
The time must come, he thought, when a beauty like that in a land of plain and drudgery-enslaved women, must bring for her something like a crisis. She was twenty-one and unawakened, but that the men about her should long allow her to remain so was as unlikely as that a pirate-crew would leave treasure unfought for. A rising tide of human passion about her seemed as inevitable as this actual flood had been—and perhaps as swift of coming.
But if the amorous selections of that crude minstrelsy made any impression upon her, she gave no indication. Before the songs ended she withdrew to the rude shelter that had been fashioned for her and wrapped herself in her blanket. But the pistol holster lay close to her hand. When she rose at day-break they had turned out of the stream upon which they had embarked into the broader river that it fed and about them floated a wavering mass of ice from broken gorges above.
Brent shivered and dabbed grudgingly with cold water at the face upon which a stubble of beard had begun to bristle. But the girl carried an icy bucket into her shack and reinforced its forward wall with blanket and rubber coat, not as a protection against the knife-edged sharpness of the air but against prying eyes. Then she bathed unhurriedly and fastidiously.
When she emerged the bloom of her cheeks and the luster of her thick hair would have been the envy of a boudoir where beauty-doctors have done their utmost. And that day too, save for the smouldering eyes of the discomfited Jase Mallows, the wolf-like pack treated her with a cautious deference of bearing.
When at the end of two days the water was dropping as rapidly as it had risen, Alexander announced, "I reckon we've got a right gay chanst now ter put in at ther Coal City boom, hain't we?" And several heads nodded assent. Brent noticed that Jase Mallows' face wore a smile which did not altogether escape malignity, and at the first opportunity he inquired: "What were you smiling about, Mr. Mallows, when they spoke of Coal City?"
The backwoods dandy scowled and gave back the churl's response, "Thet's my business."
"Certainly," Brent acceded coolly. "You don't have to answer me. I didn't suppose it was a matter you were ashamed to talk about."
Mallows bent with a truculent narrowing of his lids and an outthrust chin, but observing that the city man was in no wise cowed by his scowls he amended his attitude. Two days before Brent would have been more cautious of offending this man, whose exploits had run, sometimes, to violence, but a subtle transformation had begun in him. A new disdain for personal risks had caught fire from that flaming quality in the woman.
"Hev ye ever seed Coal City?" inquired Mallows, and when the other shook his head, he continued in a lowered voice. "Wa'al hit's a right rough sort of place. Hit's a coal minin' town with only one tavern—an' things goes forward thar right sensibly similar ter hell on a hot night. With ther flood holdin' up ther mines hit's apt ter kinderly out-do hitself jest now." He paused a moment then capped his prediction with an added detail.
"Thar'll be plentiful drunkenness an' harlotry thar. Alexander couldn't speak civil ter me, but I war jest a studyin' erbout how well she's goin' ter like Coal City."
When the rafts were safe in the boom. Brent looked about for Mallows, but Mallows was already gone. Alexander herself was among the last to start along the ill-lighted and twisting street that climbed along, the broken levels of the town toward the tavern. It was, at best, a squalid village and a tawdry one. Now it was to boot a wholly demoralized town, cut off from the other world by inundated highways and the washing out of its railroad bridge. The kerosene street lamps burned dully and at long intervals and high up the black slopes a few coke furnaces still burned in red patches of inflamed and sullen glare.
Brent had dropped out of sight, meaning to follow the girl as an unofficial body guard. Knowing her impatience at gratuitous services of protection he made no announcement of his purpose, but fell in behind the light of the lantern she carried and followed her in the shadows. When he had gone only a little way, he had the vague feeling that someone else was following him so he halted and wheeled suddenly. After peering vainly through the murk, he told himself that he was letting his imagination play him tricks but the disquieting impression of soft footsteps padding along behind him he could not dispel.
Before they had readied the main street and the disreputable pile which was the tavern, sounds of lewd and raucous voices floated out—a chorus of profane and blatant roistering.
The houses along the way presented faces utterly blank and devoid of life. Brent would have wondered at that, had he not had his brief talk with Mallows. Now he understood. Respectable folks had withdrawn to shelter behind barred doors and tightly shuttered windows until such time as the unleashed element of outlawry should evacuate the town. The law-abiding were, in effect, undergoing a siege and avoiding the ill-lighted streets.
But the light at the court-house square was relatively bright and as Brent crossed in front of the squat and shadowy bulk of the old jail-house—empty now, though it should have been full—he made out a figure hastening about him in a circuitous fashion at a dog trot as though bent on arriving at the hostelry first. That, then, must have been the presence he had felt at his back, and a fresh alarm assailed him. It was the figure of Bud Sellers.
When at last Alexander had gone up the several steps that led to the closed door of the tavern, and stood for a moment, evidently hesitating with disgust for the babel within, Brent drew back into a convenient shadow and looked anxiously about for the other figure. It had disappeared.
That hostelry was the property of one D. W. Kelly, a huge and unclean lout of a man and the establishment was as wholesome a place as a bear pit, and no more so.
It was not with complacency that the landlord saw his house given over to the destructive caprices of a drunken and uncontrollable mob. He had no means of freeing himself of his guests. When his slatternly wife had complained: "Them miners an' loggers jest louzes up a body's house," he had wagged his head dejectedly and spread his great black-nailed hands. "If that's ther wu'st thing they does hit'll be a plum God's blessin'," he replied. "Ther law p'intedly fo'ces a tavern-keeper ter sleep an' eat man an' beast—ef so be they kin pay."
Now the motley crew was in unchallenged possession—and would remain in possession until the river went down and fords were once more passable. That a reign of terror would prevail so long as they tarried in town, in no wise dampened their own exuberance of spirit.
Two or three traveling salesmen had been marooned here, but since the beginning of this saturnalia they had not been in evidence beyond the thresholds of their own rooms.
There was no bar at D. W. Kelly's tavern and none was needed, since every man was duly and individually provisioned and since even in these flood times a dollar left unwatched on a certain stump up the mountain side would cause a jug to appear mysteriously in its place.
But since there was no bar, the great room whose door opened directly upon the porch had been commandeered as a wassailing hall. Here the entering guest must run the gantlet of the rollicking horde before he could attain the more peaceful harbor of his own quarters.
About a red hot stove hung a crew of as dirty and disorderly men as ever came out of coal mine or lumber camp. Those who remained sober remained also somewhat aloof against the walls and kept their mouths shut. From the ceiling downward hung the thick, stale cloud of smoke from many strong pipes and the rancid poison of air discharged from many lungs had become a stench in the nostrils. Occasional figures walked with an unsteady lurch, while through the whole chaotic pandemonium others slept heavily in their chairs—or even on the floor.
But just before Alexander reached the porch and hesitated on the threshold Jase Mallows had been there. Now he was gone but he had first imparted the information that the "'he-woman' from ther head of Shoulderblade branch" was coming hither. So it was likely that she would have a noisy welcome. On the outskirts of the crowd sat a giant who seemed a shade rougher of guise than those about him. When he stood, this man topped six feet by as many inches. His shoulders had such a spread that one thought of them as of an eagle's wings—from tip to tip. His face, now bristling with dark stubble, was none the less clear-chiseled and arrestingly featured. At first sight a stranger would be apt to exclaim, "What a magnificent figure of a man he would make, if he were only clean-shaven and well dressed." This fellow was not drinking but looking on from a table at which no one ventured to challenge his sole occupancy or his evident preference for his own society.
A somewhat amused and indulgent gleam dwelt in his eye, tinged, it is true, with a certain unveiled contempt—but it was not the disgust that might have been expected in a sober man looking on at such a loathsomeness of debauchery.
There were women present too,—coarse and vicious creatures who lacked even the sort of tawdry finery that their sisters in western mining camps affect. There was here no shimmer of even the slaziest satin. In dress as in character they were drab.
So was the stage set when the door opened and Alexander stepped in, dropping her pack to the floor and standing speechless for a moment or two as her amazed eyes took in the composition of the picture. Alexander had never seen such a spectacle before, and as she looked about for someone who appeared to have authority here, her fine eyes and lips fell into an unmasked scorn.
She had not closed the door and through it, close on her heels, slipped Brent. For, a little space the confusion took no account of her coming but the city man was standing directly behind her and he saw the pliancy of her attitude stiffen and then across her shoulder he recognized in a rear door the tense figure of Bud Sellers.
Sellers stood looking through a lane which chance had left open and Brent thought that his posture was the electrically expectant one of a man poised for instant action. He remembered that when Bud went on a spree he was known as the "mad dog."
That same insanity which had attacked the father might now even forget that the daughter's assumption of being a man was only a pretense. He might act as though she were a man bent on avenging a mortal injury. There was no leisure then to speculate on how Bud had gotten here—that he was here with his gaze fixed in that galvanized fashion on the girl was a sufficient cause for apprehension.
Then the eyes of the many began following the eyes of the few, until a brief lull settled down on the dissonance, and everyone was staring at the girl who stood inside the door, dressed as a man, but holding their gaze with the lodestone of her womanly beauty.
A hoarse shout went up from the rear. "A gal in pants! Hit's ther he-woman!"
"I wants ter see ther tavern-keeper. Whar's he at?" demanded Alexander in a clear voice that went through the place like the note of a xylophone. She stood out, a picture of serene beauty drawn against an infernally evil and confused background.
Two of the wretched women came forward and bent upon her the full battery of their brazen and leering curiosity.
"Pants!" exclaimed one of them satirically.
"Ther wench hain't got no shame!" The second used an even uglier word.
But Alexander ignored that criticism.
"Whar's ther landlord at?" she repeated and a chorus of laughter ensued.
Then a bewhiskered fellow, red-eyed and dirty, to whom Jase Mallows had previously spoken, came to the front with a burlesqued attempt at a low bow.
"Don't heed these hyar fool women, sweetheart," he said. "They hain't nothin' but low-down trash nohow— They're jealous, but thar's some right upstandin' men-folks hyar fer ye ter keep company with. I reckon fust off ye needs a leetle dram—hits's right chilly outside."
As he proffered a flask, Brent caught the glitter of his eye, and knew that this time it would not be easy to decline. The crowd was drifting forward, and through the closing lane of humanity, Bud Sellers glided rapidly to a place near its front. His hand was inside his coat now—where the holster lay.
"A leetle dram won't do ye no harm," insisted the man of the blood-shot eyes and then as he caught the quiet contempt on the girl's face, his manner changed to truculent bullying. "Folks says ye wants ter be treated ther same as a man—an' any man thet holds I hain't good enough ter drink with—thet man's my enemy."
Brent hesitated to draw his weapon lest in such a situation it should provoke a holocaust. Yet he felt that in a moment he might need it. Then as he stood, still uncertain, he saw the giant who had until now looked on with detached emotionlessness come elbowing his way through the press, much as an elephant goes through small timber, uprooting obstacles and tossing them aside as he moves.
But Alexander had gone dead white with the pallor of outraged wrath. Her lips had tightened and her eyes taken on a quality like the blue flame which is the hottest fire that burns.
Then suddenly she moved with a swiftness that was electric and stood, before her purpose could be guessed, with a heavy-calibered revolver outthrust into the face of the man whose pistol hand had held the whiskey bottle. The flask crashed into splinters from an abruptly relaxed grip.
"I don't drink—without hit pleasures me ter drink," said the girl with an inflexible coldness and levelness of voice, yet one no more unfalteringly firm than the hand which held the gun. "Hit won't never pleasure me ter drink with a man I wouldn't wipe my feet on. Ye hain't a man nohow—ye're jest a pole-cat."
The bearded jaw dropped in amazement, and a sense of the nearness of death intruded itself upon Lute Brown's thoughts. Still since even such a situation called for a retort he essayed one in a falter that travestied the boldness of his words.
"When a man names me thet name—I wants him ter come towards me. Of course ye hain't no man though."
"I'm man enough ter take yore measure," she flung back at him, "an' I'm comin' towards ye right now. Ef yore hands ain't high when I git's thar, I aims ter kill ye."
She moved forward and the bully gave grudgingly back, but at that instant the gigantic on-looker casually laid hand upon him by one shoulder and flung him sidewise as casually as a terrier tosses a rat. His manner was precisely that of a man who removes a chair which obstructs his path.
"Stranger," said the titanic fellow in a pleasantly drawling intonation, "I think I heered ye say ye wanted ther landlord. Ef ye'll come with me I'll find him fer ye. A decent feller wouldn't hardly relish this company nohow."
There had been in his form of address no masculine patronage proffering rescue to the beset feminine, and looking up into a face which was smiling with an engaging radiance of white teeth, Alexander nodded and said only, "I'd be right obleeged ter ye."
Through a path that opened itself in silence for them, they went out of a back door, but when they had gone, Brent saw in astonishment that Bud Sellers was crouching with defiant eyes over Lute Brown as he slowly regained his feet.
"Hev ye done hed enough?" demanded Bud in a voice of deadly calm and absolute sobriety. "Because ef ye hain't, I'm hyar ter finish hit up with ye."
"Air ye one of her beaus, too?" came the surly question and Bud answered deliberately. "She don't tolerate no sweet-heartin', but whilst I was crazed with licker I hurt her paw—an' I reckon I owes her somethin'."
When the giant had returned he went nonchalantly back to his table as though nothing had occurred, but Brent followed and joined him there.
"How did you come to be here, Halloway?" asked the city man in a guarded and incredulous voice.
The tall man looked about him and then, since the drone of voices was again gathering volume he replied: "Oh, ye're right liable ter meet up with a driftin' lumberjack anywhar's at all."
After filling a disreputable pipe with tobacco crumbs he leaned a little forward, then in lowered tones, from which every trace of mountain dialect had abruptly departed he said:
"By gad, Brent, an episode that gives a man a new sensation—a new thrill, in a world of threadbare ones—is worth a king's ranson. I've seen the beauties of Occident and Orient but until now——"
A figure drifted near enough to overhear, and rising slowly Halloway finish up:
"Wa'al, stranger, hit's mighty nigh my bed time. I reckon I'll santer up ter my room and lay down. I hopes ye git's took keer of yourself, but ef ye don't ye're right welcome ter bunk in with me."
"I'll go with you now," declared the timber buyer.
In a squalid room above stairs, Halloway sat, coatless, with his flannel shirt open on a throat that rose from the swell of his chest as a tower rises from a hill. His hair was rumpled; his whole aspect disheveled; but when he grinned there was the flash of strong teeth as white as a hound's and as even as a professional beauty's.
"Now tell me," he demanded with prompt interest, "who is this barbaric and regal creature in whose train I find you? Do you assert any claim of copyright—or prior discovery, or is it a clear field and no favor?"
When Brent answered, it was with challenging decisiveness. "A clear field, yes—but certainly no favor for either of us. She is primitive enough to hold fast to a wholesome code. I wouldn't advise any philandering."
Halloway bent his head backward and gazed meditatively at the cloud of smoke which he sent ceiling-ward.
"So the faithful and chivalrous friend is giving me the benefit of his experience touching the stern virtue of an almost Druid life," he commented. "Yet I know these people as few outsiders do."
"Nevertheless, you are an outsider, Jack. When we last sat quarreling in your rooms, your windows gave off over the rhododendron of Central Park—and the bronze horseman in the Plaza. Here the rhododendron has other uses than the decorative. She could be only a reckless adventure in your life—and in all likelihood, a fatal one."
With quiet amusement in the eyes that still gazed upward, Halloway received this gratuitous counsel.
"I begin to think that, as an adventure, she'd be worth fatality," he said.
With the license of old acquaintance, Brent went on with his berating.
"I happen to know you in real life as well as in masquerade. Whether your whim calls for this fantastic and shaggy disguise or for the impeccability of evening dress, you are still only a handsome beast of prey. You are so incorrigible and so devoid of conventional morality that, in being fond of you, I wonder at myself."
"Conventional morality be damned! I repudiate it utterly," declared the giant calmly. "But tell me about this girl."
"I never saw her until a few days back," Brent enlightened his inquisitor. "Her beauty and her dauntlessness have laid a sort of spell on me and I'm a fairly conservative man. You are not—you're a plunger—a gambler in emotions. That's why I'm hanging out a warning signal."
The big man laughed with the full-chested mirth of a Viking.
"Why, my dear fellow, you would like me less if I were changed from what you call the beast of prey to such a house-dog as are most of your acquaintances. I refresh you in a life of drab monotony, because of my outspoken repudiation of things that life's copy-cats accept without thought or demurrer. I interest you because, though I am educated and disreputably rich, I remain at heart a savage—because I like to break away from the tawdry glitter of social pretense and run baying joyously at the head of the wild pack. And, in fairness, you must admit that when I revert to feral instincts I don't have to ask odds as an amateur."
The great fellow came abruptly to his feet, not with the ponderousness of most giants, but with a panther-like agility and smoothness.
"I am idle—yes—so far as it is idle for a man to refuse to go on despoiling weaker men for gain—but why not? I can spend a fortune every year for a long life-span, and still leave loot a-plenty behind my taking off. Yet, my idling is not mere slothfulness. I know the Orient, not as the ordinary white man knows it, but as one who has become a brother to the yellow and brown. I know these hills. No man in this town to-night, save yourself, suspects that I am not native—or even that I have ever participated in any other life."
"All of which I admit. The wolf may be more interesting than the collie—but for the sheepfold the collie is safer. I'm thinking of Alexander."
Halloway reflectively knocked the nub of ash from his pipe, and went on more slowly. "Civilization stifles me," he said seriously. "But when I turn my back on its dusty theologues and dogmatists, I still hold tight to the poets. To me feeling means much, but cold thought is like a fireless hearth."
The speaker was standing before the frame of the dark window. The wild capriciousness of the weather had brought rain and flashes of untimely lightning flared now and again into momentary whiteness. Brent looked at the mighty proportion of his companion and thought of the girl who slept in another tawdry room opening on the same narrow hallway. Each of them was unusual; each of them insurgent; each without fear. If their two natures should strike the spark of attraction, he trembled to think of what a conflagration might blaze from the kindling.
"I'm not discussing theories," he said a bit shortly. "I'm talking about a mountain girl whom I take it you would never marry—and if not——" He spread his hands and left the sentence unfinished.
"And if not?" Halloway caught him up. "What has marriage necessarily to do with love? There is more honesty and stimulation in the life-story of any grande amoureuse than a dozen of your stodgy fraus."
"I'm going to bed," declared Will Brent. "But—leave Alexander alone. I don't think she'd see eye to eye with you on the subject of the grande amoureuse."
"That only foreshadows a duel of wills—conflict—drama."
Halloway paused and laughed, and after that he went on with eyes that glowed admiringly.
"I dare say she never heard of an Amazon—and she's a splendid one. She dares to live a man's life in a country where other women tamely accept thraldom! Perhaps it is a great adventure. I have seen a meteor and I shall stay."
"Of course you know," Brent reminded him evenly, "the first hint that you are a millionaire masquerading as a native will engulf you in local suspicion."
"I don't mean that they shall learn that." Suddenly Halloway's head bent forward a little and his brows contracted. "They can't learn it except through you."
"Precisely," said the smaller man, with dry brevity. If the short answer brought a cloud to Halloway's face it was one that cleared immediately into laughter.
"We haven't reached that bridge yet," he announced, "and we needn't open up a Brent-Halloway feud until we get there."
There was a moment's pause, after which the big fellow continued.
"Since seeing the helpless maid, whom you seek to protect, holding back that bunch of desperadoes, it occurs to me that she can give a fairly good account of herself. Gad, it was epic!"
"Then why did you intervene?"
Halloway slowly turned his head and lifted his brows in frank amazement.
"Do you seriously ask? Did you suppose it was because I feared for her? Why, man, the blue flame in her eyes would have licked that crew without the aid of the gun. I intervened because when opportunity knocks, I open. I had enough dramatic sense to recognise my cue for a telling entrance; and I entered."
"Jack," inquired Brent, "how did you ever happen to know this remote life well enough to pass as a native?"
"Born here," was the laconic reply. But the other pressed him for fuller detail and he proceeded cheerfully. "The Halloway millions didn't come to us on a tray borne by angels. My father made his pile, and much of it he made in coal and iron—here and there in the Appalachians. He trained me up in that business. Why, I even worked during school vacations as a telegraph operator in the office of the local railroad station." He smiled again as he added, "Add that item to my versatile summary. I'm as good a key tickler as you would be apt to find in a day's journey."